Life provides plenty of reasons to move our mind to stress and worry. Worldwide pandemics, social unrest, climate change, loneliness, relationship challenges, and job transitions, to name a few. What do we do in the face of all this stress? As yogis, when we experience those moments of overwhelm and confusion, it’s a reminder to go back to the foundations of yoga: abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment).
Stress and the Mind’s Roaming Tendencies
Open up your commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the seminal text on yoga practice, and remind yourself what the goal of yoga is. Sutra 1:2 defines the goal as “complete mastery over the roaming tendencies of the mind.” The more we are able to master these roaming tendencies, the clearer and calmer our mind becomes and the more we are able to connect to our essential nature (YS 1:3), the source of deep inner stillness, ease, and clarity. The more we are connected to our essential nature, the greater our ability to make sense out of the contradictions and pains that the world constantly presents. We are more able to hold space and self-compassion for our stress and worry. Ultimately, we are able to determine our unique role to play in any given situation.
What are the roaming tendencies of the mind? There are many. Let’s start with stressful thoughts, or any thoughts that pull our mind away from center, such as those arising out of fear, worry, anger, grief, or other negative emotions. These may be thoughts like “My partner left the dishes in the sink again!” or “How are my kids going to manage in this climate-changed world?” or “My friend didn’t like the way I just spoke to her, and now I’m scared.”
This is the starting point for practice and non-attachment.
When our mind is consumed by these stressful thoughts, we are far from resting in our essential nature. When we’re irritated with our partner, worried about a global challenge, or concerned that we’ve upset a friend, it can become all we can think about. That is the mind consumed by a roaming tendency. Our mind is disturbed, anxious, agitated, or depressed. We can find it challenging to soothe ourselves and identify a clear path forward. This is the starting point for practice and non-attachment (YS 1:12), the two skills we need to cultivate to master the roaming tendencies of our mind.
Practice and Non-Attachment
Practice means “making an ardent effort to retain a peaceful flow of mind free from roaming tendencies” (YS 1:13). It means taking an action to calm the mind and move it toward a peaceful flow. It begins with uniting the mind and the breath, first through breath-centered asana and diaphragmatic breath training, and then going deeper with relaxation and meditation training. These practices calm the stress response and turn on the relaxation response in our autonomic nervous system. Gradually, we learn how to calm the mind at will.
Non-attachment is a contemplative practice in which we learn how to decondition, or decolor, the mind from its unhelpful or stressful habits and cravings (YS 1:15). We can start practicing non-attachment by learning how to disengage the mind from thoughts that are stressing us right now, so we are not so consumed by them. Once we can get unstuck from the thought loop, we’re better able to process the situation and gain clarity on what actions we need to take, or not take.
Let’s dig deeper into one of our examples. Your friend doesn’t like something you’ve said, and you’re scared. This tends to cause stress. Stress is a combination of a mental perception and a physiological response. When you are stressed, your mind is perceiving a lack of safety in this moment or an impending lack of safety in the future. The stress response increases your heart rate and blood pressure and creates butterflies in your stomach, among other physiological changes.
As the stress response continues, the mind tends to generate a slew of painful thoughts and negative emotions. There is fear, anger, or withdrawal. Fear and anger may give rise to thoughts like “What if I lose this relationship?” or “Who are they to judge me?” or “I don’t want to be alone.” Self-doubt may creep in and say, “It’s all my fault,” or “I’m not good enough.” You’ve lost your center, you’ve lost your peace, and you can’t see clearly.
Now let’s apply practice and non-attachment. Practice is making an effort to retain a peaceful flow of mind. Remember, this begins with uniting the mind and the breath. Get onto your mat for some breath-centered asana, breath regulation in crocodile pose, systematic relaxation in shavasana, or a seated meditation. All of these act to calm the nervous system, relax the mind, and move the mind toward steadiness. The stress response needs to be calmed down in order to see the situation more clearly.
Then apply the skill of non-attachment. Take time to contemplate your stressful thoughts and work toward disengaging from them. Question the validity of your thoughts. Consider the quote “Don’t believe everything you think.” Much of the time when we are stressed, our perceptions and the story we tell ourselves about our situation are simply not 100 percent true.
Practice and non-attachment give us inner resilience so that we are less affected if the relationship does end.
In my example here, we may be convinced that the relationship is going to end. While that exists as a possibility, more often than not, it doesn’t end. It may be just as likely that an understanding can be reached. But think of all the suffering the thought “The relationship is going to end” causes in the meantime. Does this mean that relationships never end? No. But practice and non-attachment can help us train our mind to stay present, get clear on the truth of the moment, and suffer less in the process, regardless of the outcome. Practice and non-attachment also give us inner resilience so that we are less affected if the relationship does end.
The bigger the stresses we face, the more we need practice and non-attachment. See your stressors as opportunities to strengthen your yoga, and get onto your mat more often. Calm your mind and nervous system. Take time to observe and question the validity of your thoughts. With time, practice and non-attachment grant you a firm connection to your essential nature—an experience of nourishment and intuition arising from your own mind and heart that acts as a constant inner guide, helping you powerfully navigate all that life brings.